Reflections on the 44th Inaugural

In the yard of my childhood years, we had an old-fashioned child’s swing. It was not a department store swing set, but a single plank wooden seat, suspended from a massive 4×4 framework by weathered old steel chains. All of this was enclosed in an overgrown arbor of trees and shrubbery. As I grew older, far from outgrowing the swing, I repaired myself to it more often, and spent happy restorative hours just daydreaming. I wondered about the future and what it might hold for me. I wondered also about the future and what it might hold for all of us.

In those years I devoured books on space exploration and science fiction. These depicted an Earth where everybody could explore wherever they wanted. They depicted an Earth where everybody could join in this together. In my world of the mid-1950’s, the idea that everybody could live in harmony – black, brown, red, white, yellow, people of every race and religion – was truly the futuristic domain of science fiction.

Two understandings I recall distinctly.

  • I calculated that I would never live long enough to see us place a man on the moon.
  • I saw that I would never live long enough to see a black President.

To say that I was prescient in some way, or had become a twelve-year-older with an unusually strong sense of morality and justice, would be to give me too much credit. I failed to see causes and that I could work for them. I failed to define goals and values I could fight for. I failed to fathom the actual complexity that would be required of a NASA for the moon launches. I failed to grasp even a rudimentary sense of the actual enormity of racial and ethnic injustice in my time. I only saw that my hopes were logical. And I saw that they were desirable.

Armstrong and Aldrin stepped off Apollo 11 onto the soil of the moon on July 21, 1969.

January 20th, 2009 falls within my 65th year. I watched the 44th Presidential inauguration on a space-age flat-screen TV. This was my first year to be able to watch the event live. Being newly retired, I did not have to work today. Being past military age, I did not have to report to my duty station today. Preparing for retirement, I had a probate document to be re-stamped, but I did not have to drive down to the Superior Court today.

This was one inauguration I would not miss. Forty years after Apollo 11, the United States of America inaugurated Barack Obama as our 44th President. The significance is not so much that I lived long enough to see the second part of my boyhood daydream on that yard swing come true. The significance is not so much that, early in the 21st century, we elected and installed our first multiracial president.

The great significance that I witnessed, the greater fruition of my dream, is that the race of our President is today so largely irrelevant.

Yet I was no visionary. Like so many in white Middle America, I did not march for justice. I did not truly appreciate what we lost in Martin Luther King, Jr. for decades. I did not grow up with the superstitions of racial prejudice, and I never embraced them in adulthood, but I rarely stood up against them with the fire of courage, either.

I recall one exception to the default course of indifference and inaction. It was exceptional only because it was personal.

As a soldier on the beaches of the Florida Keys during the Cuban Crisis, we set up Hawk missile batteries again a Cuban threat that never materialized. I found that we in the U.S. Army were most welcome in this Navy town. We, all of us, were heroes in Key West.

One Sunday morning, several of us piled into the jeep. We drove back down the Keys toward our quarters. We decided to stop at a local cafe for breakfast. Someone spotted a sign in the window that read, “No Colored“. As servicemen, we simply hadn’t thought of that. I said there was no way that could have been meant to apply to us, uniformed defenders of Key West. We went in and sat down at the lunch counter.

The proprietor was visibly honored to have us in his little cafe, but he also seemed nervous, too. He let us hungry soldiers place our orders for scrambled, hash browns, toast and sausage. But finally he nervously said that he had to clear the air about something. He wasn’t legally allowed, he said, to seat a “colored” customer at the counter. Being as grateful as anyone else for the U.S. Army in Key West, he would be happy to serve our “friend” in the kitchen – and no charge, either.

I think one of us asked if the proprietor could seat ALL of us in the kitchen: we came in to eat together. The proprietor nervously allowed that no, he couldn’t do that: not enough room. And he could get into trouble for breaking the law.

I said to my friends “This isn’t right. So, come on then, let’s go.” I recall that we bent over backwards to be polite the proprietor for at least trying to make the best of a bad situation. We left. This wasn’t about him.

Four teenage service people – three white, one black – left the cafe without breakfast. The black soldier told us he knew that was the custom down here: “You know, you didn’t really have to do that – I could have eaten in the kitchen.”

I said, “The only reason we stopped is so that we could all eat together. If we can’t all eat together, we all leave hungry together. Let’s go back to quarters and see if they’re still serving breakfast.”

Back at quarters, they’d stopped serving breakfast. But I think we all knew we’d done something important that day, in our own way: the right thing.

Today, of course, I no longer swing on a childhood swing dreaming of the future. In the same spirit, I sit at a personal computer wondering where the future will take our country. But today I can be more optimistic. What’s different today: we have proven that we can make the superstitions and prejudices of the past largely irrelevant. We have elected a president who, by all evidence, has a solid grasp on the formidable issues of today, and the plans, and political constituency, to get the job done.

Today, watching the televised proceedings on a chilly sunny Tuesday at Washington D.C., I do think it’s a momentous event when the second part of my childhood daydreaming came true in my lifetime. The presidential election of Barack Obama does actualize the dream of racial equality in a way that totally transcends forty years of talk about it. Yet the United States did not elect our 44th President to rectify the racial injustice of the past, but for this leader to serve as able and articulate helmsman during a troubled and precarious time for country, economy, and planet. A majority of Americans elected President Obama for the simpler, more pragmatic reason that we saw him as the best man qualified for the job.

There are two main components to getting the job done. We have to arrest and reverse the financial recession caused by our unchecked excesses of recent decades. And we have to reorganize several key social, economic and environmental infrastructures so that they begin working for us, not against us.

Put that way, it sounds so simple. We are yet a very strong and robust nation, with an incredibly inventive and productive work ethic. The means of producing desirable change are not our biggest obstacle. We need to table ideological obstructionism and roll up our shirtsleeves and get this job done. Some Americans may view this as a horrendous drain and redirection on our national resources if they choose, but I see it as a tremendous opportunity to generate vast new resources of national wealth and prosperity for all of us.

Yes, it is possible to build national wealth doing the right thing.

I offer thanks and congratulations to President Obama for doing so much to help define that vision. Presidents with grand visions have failed before. This one, with his grasp of detail, sense of ideal and realpolitik, leadership, and rare bipartisan cooperation during our time of urgency, seems to have the all of the right stuff. He has it at the right time.

Should his vision fail, I do not think it will still be possible for historians to discuss our era in terms of another “failed presidency”. If we fail at this time, it will be the country that fails. Somehow, I don’t see that happening.

Let’s be honest: would you say that the nation that put men on the moon in 1969 could now say, “No, we could not really do all of that again?” I don’t think we’ll say that. More than any other time in the past fifty years, I want to stick around and see how we make it all turn out.

I think we will make things work out in favor of ourselves and our future.

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